Book Review:  A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally – Part Three: Psychedelics and the Gestalt Mind

As I read on in A Long Strange Trip, I realize that it is important to remember that the idiosyncratic behavior of the Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, especially concerning drugs and alcohol but also the tendency to tease, test, and humiliate vulnerable people, was not exemplary or worthy of imitation. Their experiments with psychedelic drugs were combinations of a hedonic lust for sensation, a desire to blend experience in a sort of gestalt mind, and a quest of excellence and integration in their musical efforts. For a time Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the legendary LSD manufacturer, was a part of the Dead’s retinue, and they had continual access to high-quality hallucinogens. The Dead and the Pranksters (and other musicians of the era) used mind-altering substances to seek the limits of reality in the context of a group mind whose barriers were shattered by psychedelics and then reshaped by music. This was an illusion, of course, but a grand illusion. Ultimately, beyond a certain point hallucinogens lead only to chaos; this realization may have been part of what later prompted some of the band members to indulge in more dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

The Merry Pranksters used to say that you were either on the bus or off the bus, referring not only to the physical bus dubbed Further that they took on their epic cross-country journey, but also to the metaphorical whole-hearted giving of yourself to the gestalt, the group mind. I think that I would not have been able to stay on the Grateful Dead’s bus. There were too many drugs and too much craziness for me. That year at Santa Clara University during which I smoked so much pot and took so many hallucinogens was debilitating, not illuminating. My psychedelic trips got worse and worse and more and more confusing. I was looking for something that wasn’t there, and the search became increasingly frustrating. I didn’t manage to straighten out my mind and get hold of my priorities until I discovered writing and got out on the road to find my voice and my direction. The finest, most positive hallucinogenic trip I ever had was when a German traveler and I took LSD early one morning in Katmandu, Nepal, and walked up into the foothills as the drug took effect. We hiked along the crest of the hills surrounded by the incomparably lovely snow-capped peaks of the Himalayan Mountains. This was an experience that could never have been achieved in the raucous atmosphere of a crowded concert hall.

It should be pointed out, however, that drugs, ubiquitous though they were wherever the group went, were peripheral to the core Grateful Dead raison d’être. First and foremost, every member of the band was there for the music. Dedication to musical excellence was what bound the disparate individuals in the group together, and commitment to evolving and improving the music was what kept them together despite the overuse of drugs and alcohol and the often anarchistic nature of their sociological situations. In making this point, I should also bring up that McNally, the author of the book, was the official historian of the Grateful Dead for decades, and his closeness to the group tends to make him less than objective. Even some of the more sordid episodes in the group’s history are presented as if glimpsed through somewhat rose-colored glasses.

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